Over the coming months there will be four blog posts for each city on the Davis High School Baroque Ensemble’s 2020 England-France Tour tour: Place of Interest; Concert Venue; Music; History of the city. This week’s post, the sixteenth of the series, is on the history of Brussels.
Mont des Arts
Brussels – Bruxelles, the capital of Belgium, is in the region of Wallonia to the east of Bruges. Traces of human settlement go back to the Stone Age, and the area was later occupied by Ancient Rome. The city was founded c.980. and because of its location on the shores of the river Senne on an important trade route between Bruges, Ghent, and Cologne, Brussels became a flourishing commercial centre in the Middle Ages specialising in the textile trade. Flanders and Wallonia were unified in 1831 to create Belgium (named for the ‘Belgae’, the indigenous peoples during the Roman period), but to this day Flemish is spoken in the north of the country, and French in the south. Brussels serves as the de facto capital of the European Union, and is the headquarters of NATO.
Unlike Bruges, there is little left from the medieval period in Brussels. As was typical of medieval cities in Europe, Brussels was surrounded by a wall.The first city wall was placed around Brussels in the 12th or 13th century. One of its towers, named the Black Tower, still stands at the Place Sainte-Catherine. Other remaining parts of the first wall can be seen at Rue des Alexiens and Boulevard de l’Empereur. When the city started to expand beyond the walls, a stronger fortification was built in a similar design in the late 14th century. Both walls surrounded Brussels until the 16th century, when the first set was demolished. The destruction of the outer wall and its gates followed gradually throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Grande Place, Brussels
The Grand Place is the most impressive historical area of the city, and includes buildings from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. As the Grand Place, referred to in 1147 as the ‘lower market’, was situated close to the port on the Senne and along an important road, the marketplace did well as a bustling center for trade. The Grand Place was bombarded by the army of Louis XIV in 1695, and only the front of the Town Hall and some stone walls remained standing. The Grand Place was subsequently rebuilt in the original styles we see it today.
Ceremony of the Grand Oath, Great Sablon Square, Brussels, 1615
Another of the major squares in the city is Place du Grand Sablon. The original sablon area was unused wetland, grassland, and sand (‘sablon’ means fine-grained sand halfway between silt and sand) just outside the original city walls. The area was later used as a cemetary, and a small chapel was built there in the 14th century. In the 15th century, the neighbourhood was enlarged substantially, and the chapel was rebuilt as the larger and more elegant Église Notre-Dame du Sablon, still standing today.
There are fine examples of Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture in the city, and striking contemporary buildings beyond the historic center; and a plan for a new entrance to Headquarters of the European Union.